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Here we continue our study in the fifth chapter of James.
10Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
In the first part of chapter five of his epistle, James warned rich oppressors of their impending judgment. Then, he encouraged his oppressed brothers in the Lord, telling them to "be patient...until the Lord's coming" (James 5:7). He told his brothers to be patient just as the farmer is patient "for the autumn and spring rains." In verses 10 and 11, he offers as examples of patience "the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord."
Because "man is a creature that is led more by patterns than by precepts,"[Footnote #8] the Bible is full of examples for us to follow. There are many afflicted, oppressed prophets; prophets who "faced jeers and flogging", who were "chained", who were "put to death by the sword", who "went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated" (Heb. 11:36-37). Jeremiah, Micah, Joseph and Paul all spent time in prison; Isaiah was sawn in two, John the Baptist was beheaded. At times, we complain under our affliction, but "our betters have endured far worse."[Footnote #9]
Since most of us are not called to follow the prophets in suffering to the extent that they did, we have all the more reason to be patient to the extent they were. Given our light affliction, we have no reason not to be long on patience. "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (II Cor. 4:17-18). Certainly, our rewards in heaven will make any discomfort we experience here on earth seem trivial. As Paul says: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). Similarly, James here says: "We consider blessed those who have persevered." By considering the suffering prophets as being "blessed", James overlooks their momentary afflictions in favor of their eternal rewards.
James goes on to cite a specific example, that of Job. He says: "You have heard of Job's perseverence..." Job certainly is the prototypical example in human history of the patient sufferer. Though he vehemently discussed his situation with God during his affliction, Job committed himself to God and His providence. After losing his livelihood and his children, Job persevered in his faith and patience and said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." (Job 1:21). After his body was struck with painful boils, Job continued to persevere, saying: "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 2:10).
Job exemplifies that we, the people of God, should view our afflictions differently than those of the world view theirs. After losing their livelihood, their children, and their health, those of the world would consider that they have lost everything. For us, however, these things are but temporary blessings of God for our comfort and happiness on this earth, and they are but a foreshadow of the blessings He has prepared for us in the next life. Yes, we may lose our livelihood here, but we have riches stored up in heaven; yes, our children may pass from this life, but in doing so, they only precede us to our heavenly mansions where we will spend eternity with them; yes, our earthly bodies may deterioriate, but only as that of a caterpillar, and like a caterpillar, our bodies will metamorphose into a glorious new being.
Those of the world lack the two important qualities that are needed in order to bear affliction with patience: faith and hope. We have faith to believe that, indeed, "the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away" (Job 1:21). Job's example shows us that godly people will experience affliction within God's will. Through faith, we believe that, even in our afflictions, the Lord is in control. Also, through faith, we have hope. James tells us not only to consider "Job's perseverence", but also "what the Lord finally brought about." As David tells us: "Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." (Psalms 30:5). We all have the hope of eternal blessings when we pass from this life. In Job's case, the blessings of God were restored to him in his life on earth, as "the LORD blessed the latter part of Job's life more than the first." (Job 42:12).
We should look at our afflictions in terms of "what the Lord will finally bring about." The Lord afflicts us to strengthen us and to bring out the best in us. "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11). Who would have heard of Job if he had never been afflicted? Because of his affliction, however, Job has become the supreme godly example of patience through suffering. Job's endurance has become a support and inspiration for countless people throughout history who have suffered affliction.
We must remember, "the Lord is full of compassion and mercy." He is full of compassion concerning our afflictions. He sees our pain and, in His time, will rescue us from it, when to do so is most advantageous to us. He is full of mercy concerning our sin. We deserve affliction as punishment for our sin, but God, in His mercy, afflicts us in discipline, as a loving Father would. "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons." (Heb. 12:7). The affliction the world bears is punishment; the affliction we experience is fatherly discipline. "There is as much difference between the sufferings of the saints and those of the ungodly as there is between the cords with which an executioner pinions a condemned malefactor and the bandages wherewith a tender surgeon binds his patient."[Footnote #10]
12Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned.
James continues with his exhortations concerning patience by saying: "Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else." By the word "swear", different actions are referred to: oaths to God, usually made in the midst of affliction; vows to neighbors, usually made in desperation; curses using the Lord's name (from which profanity has evolved), usually made in rage. None of these actions befit the children of God, nor are they consistent with the patient endurance of which James speaks in the previous section, so James says: "Do not swear."
Certainly, cursing others or even cursing a situation does not display patient endurance. In our culture, in these times, swearing a curse has become a second-nature response to even the slightest bit of aggravation. It is one of the great tragedies of our age that the name of Jesus Christ is spoken forth much more in curses than in praises. Such cursing--whether we be using the name of the Lord, or some hybrid such as "Jeez", "Gosh", etc.--rejects (at best) or shows contempt for (at worst) the fact that God is involved in our situation, and also demonstrates a lack of faith that He is working everything for our good. Christians should not follow the world in expressing aggravation through curses.
Also, making vows to neighbors by swearing oaths does not display patient endurance. Such vows are usually made in desperation, in an effort to convince our neighbors that our promises will be kept. We say, "I swear to God that I will repay you" or some such thing. Our need to make such vows is aggravated by the fact that we have been less than truthful in the past, so James says (quoting Jesus, see Matt. 5:37): "Let your `Yes' be yes, and your `No,' no, or you will be condemned." We make such vows thinking that our neighbors are the only ones who can relieve our desperate situations. In rashly, desperately appealing to our neighbors with such vows, we display our impatience in the midst of our trouble, and we ignore God's work in the situation.
In addition, swearing oaths to God Himself does not display patient endurance. In the midst of affliction, we make all sorts of vows, uttering promises to God that we have no desire to carry out. We say, "God, if You just get me out of this situation, I will be holy and never miss church and pray all the time and be faithful in tithing..." or some such thing. In making such oaths, we again show a lack of faith that God is working the situation for our good. Moreover, by making such oaths, we are turning God into a mercenary by implying that He will not work for our good unless we give Him something. We are exalting ourselves by presuming that we have something of value to give to God, that He needs our holiness, or church attendance, or good deeds, or tithes. Rather than swearing oaths to God, we should commit the situation to Him in prayer, and patiently wait to see what the Lord will bring about.
Given all this, we see why James says, concerning this exhortation, "Above all". From verses 7 to 11, James gave exhortations concerning having a patient attitude during times of trouble. More important than having the correct attitude is to let your actions reflect patience during affliction. Swearing does not reflect such patience, thus, James says: "Above all, do not swear."
In the Old Testament law, oaths were not forbidden, but were given specific guidelines. Oaths were only to be taken in God's name (Deut. 6:13); His name was not to be misused in doing so (Ex. 20:7); oaths were not allowed to be broken (Lev. 5:4; 6:3). Over time, oaths were by-and-large misused, and their original purpose perverted.
Originally, taking oaths before God was an act of worship that bound one's actions to the will of God. The oaths were used as a promise to God to worship Him in a way He prescribed (see II Chr. 15:14-15; Neh. 10:29; Ps. 132:2 for examples). Now, they have become either meaningless (as in the case of many marriages), or a way to try and twist God's arm into doing something (as in the case cited above, when we say, "God, if you'll get me out of this mess, I'll do such and such").
Originally, oaths between men were a method of preserving peace. As the writer of Hebrews states: "Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument" (Heb. 6:16; see also Gen. 26:28ff; 31:44). Oaths, rather than becoming a basis for peace, became a source of contention. In disobedience to the law that says they are only to make an oath in the name of God (Deut. 6:13), the Jews would swear in the name of things close to God. They hoped that what they swore by was not close enough to God, so that they would be excused from their oath. This would oftentimes lead to litigation and a determination would have to be made whether the oath was binding. So, rather than preserving peace as originally intended, the oaths, as used by men, caused dissension.
Jesus Himself chided the Jews on at least two occasions concerning their use of oaths. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes', and your `No', `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:33-37). Later, in a discourse against the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said: "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, `If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, `If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it" (Matthew 23:16-22).
James warns that misuse of swearing and liberal use of the truth will lead to condemnation: "Let your `Yes' be yes, and your `No,' no, or you will be condemned." Condemnation seems harsh, but deception is not appropriate for the people of God, for "God is light" (I John 1:5) and God is the "God of truth" (Ps. 31:5; Isa. 65:16).
So, Father, let us live in truth and be faithful representatives of Your kingdom. Give us, by Your Spirit, patience through affliction, so that Your Name may be glorified through us. Bring to mind Your faithful prophets who bore such trials for Your name's sake, and help us to imitate their faith. In the name of Jesus we ask these things, Amen.
(We will conclude our study in James in the next issue.)
8. Swinnock, George, cited by I.D.E. Thomas in A Puritan Golden Treasury, pg. 95.
9. Manton, Thomas, A Commentary on James, pg. 427.
10. Arrowsmith, John, cited in Thomas, I. D. E., A Puritan Golden Treasury, pg. 289.
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